Martin v. City of Boise: The Cruel and Unusual Criminalization of Homelessness Through Urban Camping Ordinances

By: Jorge Coss

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the Eight Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits government from punishing involuntary acts that are an unavoidable result of a person’s homeless status.[1]TheNinth Circuit’s recent holding in Martin v. City of Boise, significantly expanded the principle that a person should not be criminalized for their status.[2]That principle was first announced in the Supreme Court Case of Robinson v. California, in the context of drug addiction.[3]In Robinson, the Defendant was charged and convicted for violating a California statute, which made it a misdemeanor to use, be under the influence,or be addicted to the use of narcotics.[4]The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the California statute violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.[5]The Supreme Court explained that being addicted to the use of narcotics is a “status” rather than an act.[6]According to the Court, this is true because addiction is an illness or affliction, which is many times involuntarily contracted.[7]Therefore, the Court explained, subjecting an individual to criminal punishment simply for their status as a drug addict was cruel and unusual, regardless of the extent of punishment involved.[8]

 Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Robinson, many have considered whether the Eight Amendment would also prohibit government from enforcing vagrancy laws that criminalize homelessness and activities associated therewith.[9]Many of those who have considered this issue agree that vagrancy laws criminalize affirmative conduct rather than simply the status of homelessness.[10]Interestingly, in Powell v. State of Texas, the Supreme court held that the decision in Robinson, did not prohibit government from punishing seemingly avoidable conduct, even if such conduct was associated with a status of alcoholism.[11]Nonetheless, some have argued that the conduct criminalized by vagrancy laws is distinguishable because it is involuntary and unavoidable by a homeless person.[12]The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Martin, addressed this issue.[13]
In Martin, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the constitutionality of a “camping ordinance” and a “disorderly conduct ordinance” as they applied to homeless individuals.[14]Among other things, these ordinances made it a misdemeanor to use streets, sidewalks, parks, or other public places as a place of dwelling, lodging, residence, or sleeping.[15]The Court determined that the “Eight Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.”[16]The Court explained that resting and sleeping are involuntary actions since they are inevitable consequences of being a human.[17]Moreover, the Court explained that resting and sleeping in public are unavoidable actions by a homeless person who has no place else to engage in this involuntary conduct.[18]

Based on the Court’s holding in Martin, any law that, when applied, punishes involuntary actions unavoidably resulting from a person’s homelessness, likely violates the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of the law’s uniformity or the degree of punishment involved.[19]Therefore, the holding in Martin, is extremely important for those American cities that have urban camping laws. This case is also important considering the large number of homeless individuals across the country.[20]It will be interesting to see how cities across the country respond and how other Circuit Courts resolve similar issues.

[1]Martin v. City of Boise, 15-35845, 2018 WL 4201159, at *13 (9th Cir. Sep. 4, 2018).

[2]Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 667 (1962).

[3]Id.

[4]Id.at 660, note 1 (emphasis added).

[5]Id.at 667.

[6]Id.at 662.

[7]Id.at 667.

[8]Id.

[9]Juliette Smith, Arresting the Homeless for Sleeping in Public: A Paradigm for Expanding the Robinson Doctrine, 29 Colum. J.L. & Soc. Probs. 293, 294 (1996); Hannah Kieschnick, A Cruel and Unusual Way to Regulate the Homeless: Extending the Status Crimes Doctrine to Anti-Homeless Ordinances, 70 Stan. L. Rev. 1569, 1573 (2018).

[10]Smith, supra note 9, at 294; Elizabeth M. M. O’Connor, The Cruel and Unusual Criminalization of Homelessness: Factoring Individual Accountability into the Proportionality Principle, 12 Tex. J. on C.L. & C.R. 233, 236 (2007).

[11]Powell v. State of Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 535–37 (1968).

[12]Smith, supra note 9, at 294;

[13]Martin, 2018 WL 4201159, at *1.

[14]Martin, 2018 WL 4201159, at *2.

[15]Id.

[16]Id. at 13.

[17]Id.

[18]Id.

[19]Id.

[20]Meghan Henry et al., The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress1 (U.S. Dep’t of Hous. And Urban Dev., Dec., 2017).

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